They Are Not Your Friend

Word on the street is that TDOT has given the city's Broad Street bike lane grant application the one-finger salute (or two fingers, depending on where you’re from). Surely, you’re not surprised? I suspect that this is one small measure of retribution for the community that dared question their plans for the US-27 expansion. It was also pointed out to me that the overwhelming majority of those grant funds ended up in cities with Republican leadership (which, I suppose, is the way government is run these days). Either way, they told us to have a Coke and smile…and you know the rest.

I’ve said it before, and will say it again- if you love downtown Chattanooga, TDOT is not your friend. They do not care about you unless you are in your car. They do not care about your business. They do not care about social equity in our community. They do not care about our natural environment or the scenic nature of the city. The do not care about our economic development, or long-term job creation. They are laser-focused on the needs of automobile and truck traffic as it moves through places. They do not care about places.  Yet, it is hard to blame TDOT for compromising the character of our downtown in much the same way that it is hard to blame the lion for eating the baby wildebeest. It is their nature to do this. American transportation engineers move cars, they do not care about the bigger picture. For them, quality of life is measured by the quality of your drive.

It's my understanding that the reason we rolled over so easily on US-27 was that by agreeing to acquiesce we would curry favor on future projects. So much for that. Bike lane grants aside, does anyone seriously believe that when the I-24 project rolls around that TDOT will produce anything other than a mega-suburban design? If TDOT fails to realize how bad the US-27 project is for our community, do you think they'll be any more sympathetic when dealing with an interstate farther away from the city core?
Don't worry, I'm not jumping into the union fray...

TDOT talks a good game about community input and participation, but talk is cheap. Developing a design, then holding a public meeting for lay-people to comment does not work. This approach assumes a basis for design that may or not be aligned with the needs of the community. In this case TDOT first developed a design that satisfies their internal needs (derived from their traffic manuals). They then held a town hall meeting in the Westside to show off their design and get to input. What the hell kind of input do they expect to get? (To be fair, they don’t really care about input unless it is negative and gets into the paper). First off, most lay-people can’t read maps. Secondly, those two-dimensional maps don’t do justice to the three-dozen massive retaining walls that wipe out topography and vegetation in reinforcing the divide in the community. In any event, the feedback that they got is that the community wanted to maintain the on-ramp from the Westside onto US-27. We’ll come back to that.

The correct way to go about community-based design is to start in the community. Working with the community before a design is attempted establishes a basis of design that frames the problem. This crucial part of the process establishes the question of the project. As the great Louis Kahn once said “A good question is always greater than the most brilliant answer”. Once the true question of the project is established, only then should pen be put to paper. In fact, after the problem is established, the rest is easy (for as another great Louis [Sullivan] once said, “it is of the very essence of every problem that is contains and suggests its own solution”.) A more equitable process would have seen TDOT conduct the meeting before drawing anything, and talking to the community. I suspect that they would have heard that lack of connection is the problem. US-27 is a massive barrier between a disadvantaged population and the jobs, stores, health facilities and other opportunities in downtown. One only needs witness the “cow paths” that the Westside residents have worn through the existing off-ramp cloverleaf to understand the disservice done when they installed the road in the first place. When they heard about the desire to maintain an on-ramp in their rigged public meeting that was the only way that the community could express their need for greater connection in that context. No other options for connectivity were even on the table.

This begs the question of what else would TDOT have heard had they listened? Obviously, there is no way to know for sure, but I suspect that they would have heard that we place a high value on the character of our natural setting and want to preserve and enhance that. They likely would have heard that we value downtown as an economic development engine for the community and the region, and that scarce downtown land should be put on the tax rolls. I don’t think that they would have heard that we are willing to sacrifice all of the things we hold important for the sake of getting trucks through our town more quickly, or for shaving thirty seconds off of driving times for downtown commuters. They never asked, so we’ll never know. They question they framed came from their traffic manuals in Nashville, not Chattanooga. 

The good news is that the sub-urban motoring culture of the DOT is becoming an anachronism. It is apparent that it doesn’t work, and it’s not sustainable from an economic, environmental, or social standpoint. The bad news is that it appears that US-27 is going to happen before that archetype collapses upon itself. We have only ourselves to blame. The community has to look out for itself; no one is going to do it for us. When we cede decisions concerning our community to "experts" from elsewhere, we get what we deserve.


Density Done Wrong

Quick note: from time to time I stumble onto a serious topic when I was not expecting to. At these times I always feel a bit anxious that the couple of hours of thought and I writing I put in are not worthy of the seriousness of the topic. This is one of those instances. Take this one for what it’s worth, and let's come back to the topic another time…

Every time I leave town, something crazy happens. This time, Taxi-gate. I feel compelled to write something about this; yet, I don’t really have a dog in that hunt. I know both of the principals involved, have a great deal of respect for them both, and know that they’re both working hard for the good of Chattanooga. Hopefully they can work through their differences and forge a manageable working relationship.

The dust-up aside, the core issue- lack of decent transportation options for a large segment of the community- is a serious one. For now, I will not weigh in on the taxicab proposal, but I will make a couple of observations about the larger issues. The truth is that transportation is not the problem, it is merely a symptom. The problem is in our history of affordable housing development.

The provision of affordable housing is a vexing problem. To clarify, I am talking about subsidized public housing; not housing that is affordable for the work force (which is also vexing, but a topic for another day). The economic barriers that are the essence of the problem are real, however, there is a more subtle and pernicious factor in play – design.

For that last several decades of the past century, hundreds of cities around the country built thousands of high-density, low-income housing developments. History has not been a kind judge of these projects. These projects are vilified for their design. The dense complexes became the poster child for all that is wrong with Modern architecture. I certainly wouldn’t defend many of those developments, but I don’t believe that the failure of that model is necessarily in design. I simply don’t believe that dense development is inherently bad from a social standpoint. There is no shortage of examples of dense housing around the world and in our city that functions perfectly. In fact, some of the properties in the hottest market in town, the North Shore, bear a striking physical resemblance to government housing projects both in density and design.

It is widely acknowledged that the biggest issue with those government housing projects was the concentration of poverty. The unintended sociological consequences of that concentration are well known. Unfortunately, the false connection has been made between concentration of poverty and density of development. To the people who have lived in these places, and to those who are involved with trying to improve the situation, density is now equated with poverty and sub-standard housing.
Around the turn of the century, as the inadequacy of the project model of subsidized housing was apparent, work was undertaken to undo some of those wrongs. This work was done under the auspices of Hope-VI and other such programs. Those redevelopment projects were very correctly based on input from those who would live there. The problem is that the basis for input is skewed. There is an understandable (but false) perception that density equals poverty and sub-urban design equals the American dream. When the public input sessions are held, of course the residents express a preference for a big yard, and a gabled single-family house with a picket fence. That is what everyone in society has been programmed to think is decent housing. It’s understandable, and it’s hard to blame anyone for making the association. After living in a dense and impoverished place, the sub-urban life looks great.

What then does this have to do with taxi’s for the underserved? The fact that land use and transportation are inextricably linked. By definition, the more sub-urban a development, the greater the distances between places. While the myth of the sub-urb is seductive, the reality is that it is completely dependent upon the automobile (or some form of personal transportation). Considering the pressing problems of the economically disadvantaged, access is one of the biggest issues: access to nutritious food, access to employment, and access to health care. The fact that the grocery store, jobs, and doctor are miles away is no big deal if you can hop in your car and drive to them. Not everyone can do that, however.

Low density, sub-urban development exacerbates the problems of the economically disadvantaged. Car ownership is expensive. Not only is the car a significant capital outlay; there is also fuel, maintenance and insurance to pay for. If one lives in a sub-urb (or less dense area) without a car, life becomes more difficult. How do you get groceries home from a store that’s five miles away? How does one ensure they consistently get to work on time by walking and using incomplete public transit services? How does one get their children to the emergency room in the middle of the night? When we face those sub-urban problems, then we are forced to develop sub-urban solutions such as scaling back subsidized transit in favor of subsidized taxis.

In theory, development that allows people to live closer to the necessities of everyday life provides the solution to the provision of dignified housing for all of our citizens. Density supports the type of mixed-use development that that put people in close proximity to jobs and good and services. Density also supports more robust mass transit options for the things that can’t be found within walking distance. As long as the bigger issue of poverty concentration is somehow addressed, density seems to provide solutions to many of the issues we face.

As compelling as that theory is, given our track record over the past eighty years, I can’t in good conscience insist upon it. We face a dilemma. It is the responsibility of the community to value and respect the input of the citizenry as we seek to provide dignified and affordable housing. It is also the responsibility of the community to develop in a way that is sensitive to both the resources of the community and the needs of those we are designing for. What happens when those two responsibilities conflict with one another?


Shameless Recycling

As many of you are no doubt aware, the Benwood Foundation has started a community blog. The site features more than a dozen very smart people and me. My focus in that space is pretty much the same as it is here, sans cussing and Alabama football. My first post on that site came out a week ago.  However, due to the shocking (if not understandable) lack of retweets and likes, I am using reusing that post as this week's C.Rushing offering. Enjoy...



I want a hamburger... no, a cheeseburger... I want a hot dog... I want a milkshake...

After being tested in the sub-freezing climes of Iowa, the mere freezing temps in New England this week posed no problem for your boy. Apologies, but with the passing of football season, it appears that weather has become my new crutch for the blog opening. Sorry, that’s all I’ve got. A few pitch-perfect days in the Scenic City, however, have blunted the edge of winter’s memory so hopefully we can put this little phase behind us.

Over the course of the last three years I have written about a wide variety of things. Yet when it comes to describing exactly what I would like to see our city become, I’ve been batting the bunny around. I’ve never made specific comments about what I want. This week I will remedy that by providing just such a list. Your list may differ and that’s one of the things that makes this country great. As a great Alabamian once said, “I may be wrong, but I doubt it.”

Disclaimer: Each of the items on this list is less important the process of developing a community vision for how they are achieved.

-I want a borderline out-of-control college strip. I’m getting on up there, so this is not likely to benefit me directly. (My version of an out-of-control night involves happy hour and ends before the sun goes down) The energy of an active social scene for young adults adds immeasurably to the life of a city. I think we’re on the verge of this happening- the question is where. Vine Street? Patten Parkway? The Boulevard? Time will tell….

-I want racially and economically diverse neighborhoods. One could argue that we have a few, unfortunately, those are all in one stage of gentrification or another (and yes, there is hypocrisy in that statement). What I want are stable and established urban neighborhoods where people of every race and income level are accommodated and welcomed. It is an understatement to say that this is a challenge in a market economy, but this is my list and it’s what I want.

-I want shade. There are a couple of places downtown where an attractive tree canopy sets a memorable stage for downtown life. Unfortunately, those places are vastly outnumbered by places devoid of vegetation. The TDOT expansion of US-27 will reduce the area of downtown tree coverage by probably 30%, and in return they are gifting us concrete walls and roads. I don’t think most people understand how seriously this will impact the scale and character of downtown. As we have rolled over on that project, we are left to try to mitigate the damage.  This means planting trees anywhere we can.

-I want to be forced out of my car. I love to drive my car. I have always loved to drive. I would dearly love to have a downtown where it is so fun and convenient to walk, bike and use transit that I would prefer that to driving. Penalizing drivers through taxes, parking fees or other policies will ultimately be less effective than creating places that are more fun and convenient to walk/bike/ride through. That’s the old question of carrot v. stick. On my trip last week it would have been easy and cost effective to rent a car at the airport and drive to my destinations. I was willing, however, to take the T and walk dozens of blocks in sub-freezing temperatures, because that was more fun than the car would have been. Oh, the joy of a city where it is more fun to walk around than it is to drive.

-I want a good Chinese restaurant. I have said this before. Good hot and sour soup is one of life’s great joys, and crispy duck is one of the crowning achievements of human kind. Unfortunately, there is no great Chinese restaurant in this county. My vision for downtown includes a great Chinese for both dine-in and take-out. Consider the great cities in our country- they have great Chinese restaurants, if not an entire China-town.

-I want more. More housing, more people, more store, more restaurants, more parks. Density is the defining characteristic of downtown, and the greater the density, the greater the variety of offerings for the community.

I’m sure that there are other things that I want, but this is the best I could do off the top of my head. Please feel to add your comments on what you want below…


You ain't from 'round here, are ya?

So there I was, on the wintry plains of Iowa, staring down the gaping maw of a polar vortex. Being as I am, physically and emotionally unequipped to deal with such things, the battle was fierce. Yet as Gandalf emerged from his battle with the fiery balrog, I too was victorious and came through the other side a changed man. Which is to say that it was cold last week. It would not have been difficult to pick out the southerner in that scene- he being the one walking through a foot of snow in suede loafers and cotton blazer. Looking fierce I must say, but not looking too smart. Next time I'll check the weather before I leave. I dislike the cold and I’m always sad to leave the family, but travel is a necessary part of what I do as the out of town consultant for other cities.

Cities or other institutions in search of guidance or assistance often reach out to individuals or firms with expertise in dealing with a particular challenge. For a variety of reasons the search often leads to out-of-towners. Sometimes that specialized expertise is not available in the community, sometimes a fresh perspective is needed, and sometimes the local pool simply lacks the capability to do a job. For better or worse, there is cache with bringing in an outside consultant for a process as opposed to using someone local. As the good book says “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house”. (I have no idea what kind of honor I have, and I’m certainly no prophet- perhaps this explains why I have been fortunate enough to work on a number of projects in Chattanooga to supplement my out of town work). In any event, hiring an out-of-towner is a thing, and one for which I am grateful.

While the benefits of bringing in consultants are many, their Achilles heel is in their very nature- they are from out-of-town. More often than not, they lack a deep understanding of existing physical conditions, they are often unfamiliar with local players and processes, and are new to the political climate. Those of us who are worth our salt expend a great deal of effort to address those issues on the front end. The fact is that the “experts” on a community are the ones that live there- not the guy who shows up for a 6-month process. Depending on the work, a consultant has at most a few months to do inventory and analysis work- often having to start from scratch. Fortunately for the consultants who worked in Chattanooga over the past few decades, that was not the case.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that one my laments for the passing of the old design studio was that we lost necessary long-term institutional memory. That is but one of a wide variety of necessary roles in the community that now go unfulfilled. (For the record, design review is the very least of these and the one thing that studio never did well). One of the great unsung stories of the studio was the role of working with out-of-town consultants.

The Design Studio was not shy about bringing in outside expertise, and they had the confidence to bring in the best (it is not uncommon for the self-conscious to shy away from good designers in order to either control the process themselves or claim more credit). The list of consultants they worked with is a virtual who’s who of the profession: Carr Lynch Associates, SITE, Pettersen+Littenberg, Koetter Kim & Associates, Dover, Kohl & Partners, Calthorpe Associates, William McDonough, and Hargreaves Associates to name but a few. All of those firms did fantastic work here, with the common thread of the design studio as partner/client. Those consultants were able to do very high level work because the design studio demanded it and facilitated it. The studio was a resource to the consultant- providing a framework within which each consultant could operate, providing on-the-ground perspective on site conditions and political circumstances. The consultants that came here had the benefit of years of design investigation at a variety of scales, and a larger contextual framework for how their work fit into the overarching vision of the community.

In my experience, good clients make good consultants. The design studio was a great client – they knew how to frame the work, knew the right questions to ask, and enabled the consultants to perform at a high level. There was genius at the studio that pushed consultants to exceed their own high standards. As you may imagine, that didn’t always go over so well, but it produced results. As I was pulling together the retrospective, I came across a letter with a note about Stroud (and by extension, the Studio) that stuck with me “I have seen him perform with a wide range of architects locally, nationally, and internationally; the better they are, the more respect they have for him”. Having a client that can pull/push a consultant as a project dictates results in a creative tension that produces the best results.

Having an urban design institution with years (if not decades) of experience in the city was a tremendous resource. The result was a community that got the most out every consultant that came here. Their success here made them better, and we were the beneficiaries. As we continue to draft our laundry list of urban design process deficiencies, let’s add the lack of an institutional framework for engaging, managing and pushing consultants to perform exceptional work in our community.